Friday profile: The Molybdenum Man

Not everyone can claim that their work saves lives. But Michael Druce, who last week received the gong for Sustained Contribution at this year’s Australian Nuclear and Science Technology Organisation (ANSTO) research awards, is certainly among those who can.

For the last 37 years at ANSTO, Druce has focused on the manufacture and development of Molybdenum-99 (Mo-99) – a parent isotope of Technetium-99m, which is used in nuclear medicine to diagnose heart disease, skeletal injury and cancer.

“Mo-99 decays naturally to Tc-99m, and Tc-99m is used extensively throughout the world for diagnostic nuclear medicine scans,” Druce tells me. “Every year approximately 50 million people have a Tc-99m scan.”

While Tc-99m has a half-life of six hours, which makes it difficult to distribute in large quantities, Mo-99 has a half-life of 66 hours. These days, Mo-99 is distributed to hospitals and pharmacies in a device called a technetium generator – and Druce was instrumental in developing it. 

That’s a significant achievement, I tell Druce, who finds time to chat to me before heading to a university architecture show. I ask how it feels to positively impact so many people with your work.

“It’s a nice feeling actually,” he says humbly, and recounts an instance during which he felt this impact. He was fulfilling a delivery to a nuclear medical centre, and ended up in conversation with a patient and her husband.

“It was one of the late deliveries on a Friday afternoon which we managed to get to them,” he remembers. “Our products are basically used for diagnosis of issues: if they get an early and reliable diagnosis, then early treatment can start.

“They said what a difference it was making to them to get this treatment done. It comes home to you the impact it has – not just on the physical wellbeing of people, but the mental appreciation as well.”

During the past five years, Druce has been occupied by the development of the new ANSTO Nuclear Medicine facility, which has the capacity to supply 30% of the world’s demand of Mo-99. “The design of the building was based on my initial design,” he says, “although this has been modified to meet engineering demands.”

Druce has spent a good many days in recent years ensuring the plant runs smoothly and adheres to various medical and health and safety guidelines, but it’s the detail in his job that he enjoys most.

“I have always found the work interesting and challenging, because we’re working at molecular levels with small volumes in a highly radioactive environment,” he tells me. “Our systems need to be highly reliable so that patients aren’t affected by late delivery.”

Druce’s undergraduate studies in industrial chemistry and nuclear technology have obvious links to his current work, but in a previous life he worked at distilleries, fermenting molasses for alcohol.

Although his interest in science started in childhood, reading books for kids about how the world works, he says he always had a soft spot for chemistry. “I like the predictability. I like to be able to work out how to do something and then do an experiment and make it work, make it come out the way you expected.”

Born and bred in Caringbah, NSW, he also has a penchant for sailing – but for entirely different reasons. “I like racing because I do like to win,” he laughs. “I also love the peacefulness of it. Sailing is an escape. It forces you to relax – because when you’re cruising up the coast for a day or two, there’s not much else to do.”

Before our conversation ends, I congratulate him on the work he’s doing, and also on his recent award. Winning, it would seem, is never far from his repertoire.

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